Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses Booth Theatre Written by Christopher Hampton; Based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos; Original Music: Michael Bruce Directed by Josie Rourke Scenic Design by Tom Scutt; Costume Design by Tom Scutt; Lighting Design by Mark Henderson; Sound Design by Carolyn Downing; Hair Design by Campbell Young; Make-Up Design by Campbell Young Janet McTeer La Marquise de Merteuil Liev Schreiber Le Vicomte de Valmont Elena Kampouris Broadway debutCécile Volanges Mary Beth Peil Madame de Rosemonde Birgitte Hjort Sørensen Broadway debut Mme. de Tourval Raffi Barsoumian Broadway debut Le Chevalier Danceny Katrina Cunningham Émilie a courtesan Joy Franz Victoire Ora Jones Madame de Volanges David Patterson Broadway debut Major-domo Josh Salt Azolan Valmont's valet de chambre Laura Sudduth Broadway debut Julie Understudies: Katrina Cunningham (Cécile Volanges), Rachel deBenedet (La Marquise de Merteuil), Joy Franz (Madame de Rosemonde), Ron Menzel (Le Vicomte de Valmont, Major-domo), David Patterson (Azolan, Le Chevalier Danceny) and Laura Sudduth (Mme. de Tourval, Victoire, Émil

It’s a little different seeing Les Liaisons Dangereuses in these days of heightened awareness of the prevalence of sexual assaults on women. Our new pussy-grabber-in-cheif makes the exploits of the rapacious Vicomte de Valmont stand out even more starkly. Valmont may claim that his assaults are intentionally resistible so that woman can’t claim he forced them. Still, he does indeed grab women – who are saying no – right in the pussy. If in the past the Marquise de Merteuil’s final “war” on Valmont seemed a pass too far, it seems all too justifiable now.

As Valmont, Liev Schreiber cleverly calibrates all of this, shading his interpretation with the sense that he is more a slave of his appetites than their master. He is possibly the sexiest man ever to play Valmont, with a brooding virility that helps explain this decadent man’s appeal. Schreiber is better known for playing more macho sorts, but proves more than capable of playing – with great intelligence and sophistication at that – a dissolute, even melancholy 18th Century French aristocrat.

Former lovers, Merteuil and Valmont compete in games of seduction and revenge. And if Schreiber’s Valmont is the louche, lounging sort, then Janer McTeer’s Merteuil is the very picture of elegant yet implacable ferocity. Her consonants rustle, her vowels throb. Her hands and fingers flutter with the lethal precision of daggers. The exterior is calculating and cool, but seething lava boils underneath. It’s one hell of a performance, and if McTeer isn’t remembered with a nomination at Tony time, I’m crying foul.

Director Josie Rourke has given these star turns a gorgeous production, all candle-lit chandeliers and the effortless glamour of decay. The pace is languorous without being unbearable, a minor-key pavane of a privileged class on the brink of collapse. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Judy Collins

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No one sings a folk song more beautifully than Judy Collins, and few people sing more beautifully, period. She’s an authentic river of song, in truly golden voice in her seventies. She’ll be talking about a song in passing, and then launch into three or four lines, singing with breathtakingly casual grace and beauty. And then continue with her story “and so I told Leonard Cohen that yes, ‘Suzanne’ is a good song and I’ll be recording it tomorrow…”

In tribute to Cohen’s passing she did a medley of his “Bird on a Wire” with one of he own songs – Cohen had encouraged her as a songwriter, which was life-changing for her. When she sings a song in earnest, she’s truly arresting, imbuing each line with subtle style, implying stories behind stories.

This particular act follows on the release of Silver Skies Blue, an album of duets with Ari Hest, a 37-year-old singer / songwriter. The central part of the act is the two of them together. His songs fit Judy’s voice like a glove, and their voices sound very natural in harmony together. The song of his that stuck with me most is “Aberdeen”, about a young person’s burning ambition to leave the titular South Dakota small town.

The stories Judy tells are truly entertaining, varying from the touchingly personal to the hilariously bawdy. She is so enthusiastically invested in the music – her spectacular, undiminished talent always grants an amaziningly intense cabaret experience. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Heisenberg

Heisenberg MTC Friedman Theatre CAST & CREATIVE for Heisenberg View All Cast Georgie Mary-Louise Parker Alex Denis Arndt Creative Written by Simon Stephens Director Mark Brokaw Set Designer Mark Wendland Costume Designer Michael Krass Lighting Designer Austin R. Smith Original Music and Sound Designer David Van Tieghem

When looking for someone to adapt his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon specifically sought out playwright Simon Stephens because of his “heart of flint.” That captures Stephens’s cool and clear-eyed observation of people with all their flaws, but it misses the underlying optimism in his writing that creates such an exciting tension with his flinty surfaces. His specific brand of guarded optimism was indeed exactly what was needed for Curious Incident, and is once again on surprisingly heartening display in his own play Heisenberg.

In a London train station, Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker) spots Alex (Denis Arndt), a man several decades her senior, and plants a kiss on his neck. Nothing is quite as it seems, either at that moment, or indeed as their relationship grows and changes. Out of unpredictable oscillations between self-interest and selflessness is born something that closely resembles love.

Both Georgie and Alex have massive defense mechanisms due to difficulties in their lives, yet gradually offer each other more and more company and comfort, because…well, why not? Parker can sometimes be abrasive and “too much” as Georgie – but that’s actually because she’s playing the character correctly. Similarly, Arndt can be a bit opaque, but that’s because Alex is opaque.

Stephens very successfully makes us care about two prickly, slippery people by giving us insights to the all-too-human pain that drives them. Mark Brokaw’s spare but very detailed direction serves Stephens’s script marvellously well. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Sharon Needles

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A song about Candy Darling by Lou Reed, and a Rocky Horror song delivered with a dash of Bette Davis and a whole lot of Alice Cooper – these were perhaps the most deliciously telling things about Sharon Needles’s Halloween-themed cabaret act. Needles keeps referring to her shtick as “stupid,” which I chalk up to a knee-jerk – and praise-worthy – punk need to puncture any and all kinds of self-importance. But don’t you believe it: This is one smart poison cookie!

The question I had going into this act was: “how well does this witch sing?” Because, like Bianca Del Rio, I don’t pay much attention to singles and albums released by drag queens. These are people who are meant to be seen live. And the answer? Sharon sings very well indeed, in a glam punk kind of way – the Alice Cooper reference above captures it, with an added dash of Marilyn Manson aggression.

The majority of the songs are from her campy horror albums. On those, the songs are done in a gothy version of the electropop style that is de rigeur for Drag Race graduates (I took a listen after I’d seen the act). Done live with only a piano, their hard rock roots are definitely showing, which makes me very happy. Makes me wonder what they would sound like played balls-to-the-wall Iggy & the Stooges style.

The above-mentioned cover versions are highlights of the evening. To hear the Velvet Undergound’s 1968 classic “Candy Says” sung with great sincerity and emotion by a man in a beautiful wig and dress is quite moving. And Sharon’s hilariously re-lyricized version of “Sweet Transvestite” gives new life to that midnight movie chestnut.

It’s a good thing this act is consistently high quality, cuz it’s a bit of a butt-buster with its nearly hour and a half length. That said, I didn’t really lose patience that whole time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Stuffed

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Fat, feminist, funny. In comedian Lisa Lampanelli’s first play Stuffed, it’s that last word that’s key. I’ve worked in feminist theatres, I’ve written for gay publications for a long time, so I can confirm that, just as the title of Susie Orbach’s 1978 landmark book says, Fat Is A Feminist Issue.

I’ve seen and worked on many shows that address how fat-shaming is used to oppress women, and how women negotiate their relationships with food and weight. Of all of them, Stuffed is far and away the funniest treatment of this important issue that I’ve ever seen, and that’s a very good thing.

Right from the beginning, director Jackson Gay’s staging lets us know that this is going to be a very presentational show, with the four women on stage sometimes talking to each other, and sometimes talking to the audience. At its most naturalistic, the play is a casual conversation between Lisa more or less playing herself in her home with guests bulimic Britney (Jessica Luck), confident overweight gal Stacey (Ann Harada), and chronically thin Katey (Zainab Jah).

It’s not surprising that a play by a stand-up comedian should be unafraid of using direct address, and the free flow between different modes of performance is one of the things that keeps the show moving at a brisk clip. Lampanelli occasionally even picks up a mic and goes into full stand-up mode.

The only major lull in the performance came when Lisa told the not always funny story of her relationship with a man considerably larger than herself. This story could have benefited from shifting from “stand up” to “monologue” perhaps even back into “realistic” dialogue. Having it all in mic’ed spotlight only served to point up how long it is.

But that’s a quibble. Some shows I’ve seen on this subject have been painful to sit through, but that is decidedly not the case with Stuffed. In addition to dealing humorously with the subject, Lampanelli writes with a light touch throughout. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Michael Feinstein & Marilyn Maye

Michael Feinstein and Marilyn Maye

Marilyn Maye’s a great hidden national treasure; Ella Fitzgerald herself once called Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.” That was no exaggeration when Ella said it and it’s even truer today. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices, but I can think of no other living singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve and undiminished vocal range.

She is currently sharing the stage of Feinstein’s / 54 Below with Michael Feinstein himself. Feinstein has had great success doing duet shows for many years and here, as usual, it’s a winning situation all around. This particular match is especially good: Maye is still at the top of her game at 88 – how many people, let alone performers, can say that – and Feinstein just keeps getting better, marrying soaring vocal power with ever more detailed nuance in his interpretations.

They both shine in their solo moments: Feinstein pays tribute to the upcoming production of Hello, Dolly in a bouncy rendition of the title song, including some newly fashioned lyrics from the composer / lyricist Jerry Herman. And Marilyn gives us her sultry rendition of Blossom Dearie’s “Bye Bye Country Boy” – I’ve heard her do it before, but still, every time her legendary interpretative ability gives me shivers. Of their fabulous encore, I won’t say anything, except that it exploits Michael’s ongoing love affair with boogie-woogie, which suits the ever-swinging Maye just fine.

Musical director Tedd Firth brings a glossy, sophisticated jazz musicianship to the proceedings, providing a luscious frame for the pair’s multifarious artistry. If you love classic songs sung like they’re meant to be sung – and swung – it doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: BenDeLaCreme

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“What the Hell?” That’s the question posed by innovative drag performance artist BenDeLaCreme in her latest show, Inferno-A-Go-Go. BenDeLaCreme’s shows are truly unique, not just in drag performance, but in theatre as a whole. Sure, she includes the goofy song parodies and wisecracking comedy so common in drag. However, she’s after something far more sophisticated – her seductive strangeness creeps up on you.

The queen otherwise known as Ben Putnam is playing less of a ditz this time around, wryly joking about the fact that’s she’s chosen to do a drag cabaret based on Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century Italian epic poem Inferno. She’s more confident this time out, less coy about being more profound than the most chin-strokingly serious straight play, while rarely being less than belly-laugh hilarious.

BenDeLa forever rebukes the notion that arts of clowning, drag, circus, burlesque and ventriloquism are somehow less than other performance forms, somehow stupid. Putnam takes the best of all those forms and whips them into something new, fascinating and intensely intelligent. Not only that, BenDeLa uses these popular forms to probe the very biggest questions, switching from deep existential angst to spiritual lightness in the space of a minute – in between double entendres about sex and booze.

BenDeLaCreme is all about fantastic and ridiculous artifice, but also ultimately really about what that artifice can communicate and express about deeper things, like ethics and how to take care of ourselves and each other. She delivers a show that’s equal parts cheeky fun and insightful art, no small feat. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.